Friday, January 18, 2008

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s New Hampshire win, despite polls that put Barack Obama up 8.3 percent leading into the primary, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls, is explained by Mrs. Clinton’s showing her human side 24 hours before the vote, as she skillfully, misty-eyed, pleaded “It’s not easy.” (I, too, found it moving, if not entirely without calculation.)

It was easy, however, in largely white New Hampshire to reprise the emotional dynamics of the 1968 Oscar-winning film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, to deflate Mr. Obama’s rising momentum.

For those who don’t know the storyline, a highly accomplished 30-something black doctor is about to marry an upper-crust 20-something white woman, which unleashes a torrent of consternation at such an unlikely and culturally unacceptable pairing, threatening to derail their impending marriage.

But, in the end, the happy couple marries and racial prejudice is struck a big blow at least in the fairy-tale world of Hollywood.

One wonders if such a dramatic turn of events is possible in the real world of politics for Mr. Obama faces formidable challenges, starting with his own party.

Remember the whispering campaign about his youthful indiscretions, complete with the “c” word, floated mid-December by Billy Shaheen, husband of New Hampshire’s most powerful Democratic woman, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. The Clinton campaign pretended to banish him, but the damage was done or rather, the vaccine injected into the electorate, apparently with the intended effect. Black Entertainment Television Founder Robert Johnson’s recent similar allusions further suggests strategic underpinnings rather than elder indiscretions.

Additionally, the Democratic Party’s civil rights history, prevailing myths notwithstanding, reveal deeply rooted attitudes potentially challenging Mr. Obama’s ascendancy.

Mrs. Clinton would like voters to think the Democrats were and still are the “knights in shining armor” vis-a-vis civil rights. As she told Fox News Channel’s Major Garrett Jan. 7, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before (i.e. Dwight Eisenhower) had not even tried … the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.”

Her statements, however, are belied by the facts. As Bruce Bartlett reports in his book “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past,” Eisenhower boldly advanced racial equality and justice, renewing his civil rights legislative request in his 1957 State of the Union Address after the House passed and Senate killed it the previous year due to Southern Democratic delaying tactics. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first such legislation since the end of Reconstruction, enacted because of overwhelming Senate Republican support. Likewise, Eisenhower’s federal judicial appointment two years earlier of Frank Johnson in Alabama, whose first decision overturned the blacks in the back of the bus law, was of seismic consequence.

Writes Mr. Bartlett, “the key [Senate] figure was Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who … [was] installed in his position by Southern Democrats precisely … to block civil rights legislation.” Johnson, he notes, delivered in this regard until he realized that “the tide had turned in favor of civil rights and he needed to be on the right side of the issue if he hoped to become president.”

So rather than filibustering the offending legislation, “Behind the scenes, Johnson went along with [Georgia Sen. Richard B.] Russell’s strategy of not killing the civil rights bill, but trying to neuter it as much as possible. … Eisenhower was disappointed at not being able to produce a better piece of legislation. ‘I wanted a much stronger civil rights bill in ‘57 than I could get,’ he later lamented. ‘But the Democrats … wouldn’t let me have it.’”

As if that isn’t damning enough for Hillary’s fairy tale about the illustrious civil rights record of Democratic presidents in contrast to alleged Republican hard-heartedness Mr. Bartlett quotes Johnson to illumine his true motivations in 1957:

“These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”

So what might Democrats do to pacify such “uppityness,” while ensuring guess who doesn’t get the nomination? I won’t even speculate except to offer this one observation. As with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” when love’s involved, it’s nearly impossible to stop the inevitable.


Ms. Kendall is also a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer having written professionally since 1986, initially as a speechwriter.

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